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Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

Normalization and the Norm

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

There seems to be some confusion out there about what we mean when we use the word “normalize,” and how that is related to the word “normal.” Allow me to clarify.

When we talk about normalizing a particular behavior or idea, we are not saying that the person exhibiting that behavior or expressing that idea is not “normal” in the common sense of that word. We aren’t, for example, saying that the person is deranged, or intellectually deficient, or pathological. Some might actually think those things, but that is a different discussion and I would appreciate it if you did not engage in that here.

We are, rather, using the word “normal” as the adjective form of the word “norm.” A norm is a behavior or idea that our culture or society tells us, in both subtle and more obvious ways, we should expect from each other. We are trained from early on to regard these things as “the way it is.” Now norms are not necessarily the most common or most acceptable or most likely behaviors or ideas, which is what the word normal usually suggests. For instance, American culture has, for its entire history, been dominated by the behaviors and ideas of straight (at least openly), male, Puritan/Christian (at least publicly), powerful warrior men. In other words, the straight, white, Puritan/Christian, powerful male warrior is the norm. And we are socialized to view the world from that perspective.

Now, there are, in fact, more women than men in the population; there are far more people among us more who have no more than modest power, and we are quickly discovering that LGBTQ+ people are much more numerous than we have been told and the non-white population may soon outnumber the white population. And any one time, the number of people who are veterans or serving in the armed forces is less than 15% of the population.  But that only states the demographics, not the norm. The norm remains primarily straight, white, Puritan/Christian, warrior men of power (especially economic). And that means, that despite our attempts to change things, the perspectives arising from that norm continue to pervade the society.

Distrust, bigotry, discrimination and disenfranchisement of people who do not represent that norm is “normal.” Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the Christianization of society are “normal.” The dis-education and miseducation of those not part of the norm is “normal.” Using the very genuine fears of the working class, minorities, and women to divide the masses of people and thus more easily rule over them is “normal.” The idea that success is to be defined in terms of wealth is “normal.” The idea that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve that mythological thing we call the “American Dream” is “normal.” The idea that problems can be best resolved through force is “normal.”

Now we have tried over the years to change some of those things, but progress is always slow and still fragile, as the recent election demonstrates. The things we do to create greater equality for all, to promote justice and protect the rights of those who have less power to protect them for themselves,  and to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems, are called “normalization,” or “normative behaviors.” That is, they are things we do to create new norms that better reflect our diversity, our stated American ideals, our rights, privileges and responsibilities as members of society. But our social behaviors, our laws, our public images of ourselves in the media and our demographics all change more quickly than our norms do.

So electing a non-white President did not change the norm of whiteness as the perspective through which we see things. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Roe-v-Wade, and the striking down of laws that would require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes, for a few examples, did not usher in a new secular norm. Women still have less access to power, non-whites and non-Christians are still marginalized, and it is still “normal” to proclaim one’s patriotism while waving the flag of a nation that went to war against the United States, and lost. We still think that the more firepower we have, the safer we are.

When we try to normalize something, we are trying to create it as a norm. We are saying that this behavior or this idea is to be expected, that it defines us as a society and a culture, that this is now the perspective from which we will evaluate and express our public and official actions.

So, what we are really seeing around us now is not the normalization of bigotry, of white supremacy, of male dominance and privilege in the affairs of the nation; we are seeing an attempt by that “normal” perspective to roll back the normalization of those things that threaten it. It is not the normalization of racism that threatens us, it is the de-normalization of diversity. It is not the normalization of misogyny, it is the de-normalization of the idea that the feminine is in all ways the equal of the masculine. It is not the normalization of xenophobia or homophobia or religious prejudice, it is the de-normalization of acceptance, tolerance, and cooperation. It is an attempt to say that who we are becomig is not who we are; an attempt to say that who we are is embodied in the worst of who we have been all along.

SUPERMAN NEEDS LEX LUTHOR: The Problem with Superheroes

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 9, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Another superhero movie, another blockbuster. America seems to really love its costumed crusaders for truth, justice and the American way. Of course, in this case the American way would seem to be to hope a superhero comes along to take care of the problem. The superhero myth is a powerful one, but there are at least five serious problems with it.

  1. They don’t really exist. So we have to create them.

Okay, by the time most of us have reached the tween years we are fully aware that Superman and Spiderman and Batman and the rest are just comic book stories. But that doesn’t keep us from wishing they did exist; perhaps even wishing that we could be bitten by a radioactive spider, or have a lot of cool, clever gadgets to hang on our belts and make us invincible. Since neither of those things are ever going to happen, we look for substitutes for our superheroes: soldiers, explorers, inventors, policemen and firefighters, of course; but also politicians, celebrities, sports figures, the equally mythological American cowboy, and whatever larger-than-life personality has currently captured our attention. For some people, even their religious figures are cast as superheroes to be called upon in times of crisis.

And in the absence of a clear superhero, individuals may rise up and try to claim the title. The politician will present himself as the only one who can solve all the problems, vanquish all the enemies; and he doesn’t even need to say how it will be done, only convince us that he, and he alone, can do it. The NRA tells us that there are superheroes among us, good guys with guns, who are our only defense against whatever new evil may suddenly threaten us.

  1. Superheroes require supervillains.

Just as superheroes don’t really exist, neither do supervillains. When we create superheroes, or they create themselves for us, there arises a simultaneous need to create supervillains to justify the superheroes. Our supervillains can be individuals, such as Hitler; or a nation, such as Russia; or vague entities, such as multinational corporations and international cabals and the illuminati; or whole groups of people who can be quickly identified by some simple, single characteristic, like Muslims, or liberals/conservatives, or the Black Lives Matter Movement; or corrupt police, or the KKK, and so on. They can even be the more difficult problems in our society, te ones that have no easy answer, like poverty, disease, bigotry and violence. One thing is certain, though. Our supervillains will always be a characteristic of the “others,” those scary people who are not like us, and are scary precisely because they are not like us. We are encouraged to see the other as supervillain by default. And once the supervillain has been identified, we rally behind the superhero to demand their destruction.

 

  1. Superheroes and supervillains tend to inhabit a dark and dangerous world, and the problems and the solutions are nearly always about the exercise of power rather than the exercise of intelligence.

I remember the superheroes of my youth as generally clean, morally unambiguous figures. The people they served were a lot like me, ordinary folk who lived quiet, uneventful lives until some supervillain came along and created a disaster that only the superhero could resolve. But the fact is that superheroes were always vigilantes. They operated outside the constraints of law. The police both allowed and encouraged them, cooperated with them, but it was clear that the superhero could do what the normal authorities either could not or were not allowed to do. But even with that, the superheroes seemed to respect their own powers; they rarely killed an adversary, and almost never killed on purpose.

As time went on, however, things took a darker turn. Gotham City became an increasingly dirty, depraved, and crime-ridden environment; and Batman’s character and costume got darker along with it. But even with the greater moral ambiguity that suggests, there was no moral ambiguity about the need for the hero to win; and to win by whatever means necessary; and those means became increasing violent and deadly, as did the supervillains. What was once the need for a superhero to defeat the occasional supervillain – and extraordinary event that interrupted the normal flow of the average citizen’s life – became a constant need for superheroes to fight back against the constant threat of powerful and deadly supervillains in a darkly dangerous world of evil.

But in such a world the supervillains can never be actually defeated. If they could, then the superhero would be out of a job. The villains have to be so powerful that all we can do is hold them at bay for a while, and make sure that our superheroes are well armed for the battle that, if it isn’t happening right here and now, will surely come. And if we defeat one supervillain, there will be a ready supply of others. Eternal vigilance is necessary in a world where the problems cannot actually ever be finally resolved. Fear ceases to be the natural response to extraordinary events, and becomes the constant condition of our lives.

In places like Ferguson or Standing Rock and Malheur we are told that the end justifies the means, but it is always the people with the guns who, we are told, are standing up against the supervillain others who must be defeated or life as we know it will surely be destroyed. As long as we know who is the hero and who the villain, then the hero must win. But we express our shock and surprise when someone decides that he must be the superhero and shoots up a nightclub full of homosexuals or a church full of black people; or blows up an abortion clinic; because he didn’t see a superhero doing enough to rid the world of these supervillains and took on the job himself.

 

  1. Buying into the superhero culture interferes with the search for real solutions to systemic problems.

Why do we need spend time and money and our moral energy on finding reasonable and long-lasting solutions to problems if we can hold out hope for a superhero with a simple plan to swoop in and take care of it? What use is diplomacy if we believe that Captain America still exists somewhere and now has a nuclear weapon or a fleet of drones? Why do we need to rely on the justice system, the courts and the lawyers, when we have so many policemen with guns and tasers and billy clubs; and the presumption that their actions are justified? Why do we need to have our lives disrupted by protesters who want things we don’t want, when we have the National Guard with water cannons and dogs and rubber bullets and sometimes real bullets? And why do we have to put up with a government that sometimes does things that we don’t want them to do when we have our own guns?

Why do we need to really think about things like why we are ill or what is causing the stress in our lives, or how we might solve those problems, when we have a pharmaceutical industry always working on new superhero drugs to fix us? Why do we need to accept or tolerate our neighbors who are not like us, when that man over there is telling us that our problems are their fault, they are the supervillains, and he has the final solution? And why should we care how he does it as long as it’s done?

 

  1. The superhero culture prepares us to accept demagogues, war, a police state, and restrictions on our freedom by convincing us that we are individually and collectively weak and need to be saved.

We have been and are continuing to be acculturated to believe that all our problems are enormous; every conflict is a crisis; we are incapable of doing what needs to be done; .and we must therefore find a superhero to lead us, to fight for us, to keep us safe. But such leaders may be motivated to keep us only as safe as will keep us in fear that the superhero may go away and leave us defenseless.

When the planes brought down the World Trade Center, we told ourselves that it had united us as Americans, that it had restored our faith in or collective ability to come together at times of great tragedy. But we quickly looked for the supervillains, and for superheroes to lead us. And we chose as our heroes, those who would tell us who the villains were, and promise to defeat them. Then, with each new villain brought to what we were told was justice, more rose up, until the supervillain became an entire race, an entire religion, and anyone we could tell ourselves was one of them.

Whenever something begins to change and those changes make us uncomfortable, we are told that that discomfort is fear, that fear is a sign that we are under attack, and there will be someone – a politician or a priest or a pundit – who will tell us who the supervillains are, and offer to be our hero. They will describe dark conspiracies in terms of war and destruction. The crisis is present and we are in danger and only the tools of war will save us. Don’t try to understand, never compromise, do not discuss, never seek the peaceable solution. Anything but the destruction of the other, the supervillain, is weakness that will surely mean the end of us.

The thing is, it’s all a fantasy. But it is important to understand that it is a fantasy in which we participate with both our ignorance and our complicity. We do not question the fantasy and so we never learn the truth of the illusion. And we are unwilling to make ourselves uncomfortable, to face our problems together, to know the other, to confront our fears with reason. We don’t really want to deal with it all.

This isn’t the media’s fault or the politicians’ fault or religion’s fault. It’s not strictly the fault of the wealthy or the white or the male; though the culture gives them special place and therefore special responsibility. The media does not create the culture, but it reflects what we already accept as real and normal, and thereby reinforces and encourages the illusion. And the politician or the priest or the talk radio celebrity are there because we put them there.

Cultural truths do not change until we become uncomfortable enough with them to stop buying what the culture is selling us. Superheroes and supervillains will be with us until we can see that they are not real, they are not normal, and they are not the solution. When we come to the realization that we are stronger when we are not afraid of each other; that we can do this together, that we don’t need to send our superheroes destroy each other, and when we realize that far too many of our superheroes do not live among us, but rule over us; and that we may very well be the supervillains of choice tomorrow; then we can put away the fantasy and begin the real work.

GIVERS AND TAKERS — The Normalcy of Need

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on December 7, 2016 at 11:35 am

The First Nations, for the most part, had no concept of ownership of things. We are given only temporary custodianship in this world, and that is both a gift and a responsibility. Our purpose is to consume only what we need and to leave the rest, both to meet the needs of others, and so that the world can replenish its resources for our future use.

But within that statement is the very troublesome word “need.” The word has connotations of weakness, inferiority, and shame. And that’s too bad, because need is at the very heart of the human condition and the nature of our relationships. There are six things you need to know about needs.

  1. Everyone has them.

Anyone who has sat through Psychology 101 has probably heard of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. There have been several versions of his famous pyramid, but the basic idea is that human beings have a range of needs from the basic biological needs all the way up to our need to self-actualize; to become as fully aware of and as comfortable as possible with our own humanity. Some of these needs are important to our physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual health and well-being. Others are necessary for our growth and development in all those areas.

But our needs aren’t identical. Each of us has greater needs in one area than in another: and each of us is successful in getting at least some of our needs met.

2. Everything we do is an attempt to meet our needs.

And the corollary to that is that we nearly always attempt to meet our needs in cooperation with other human beings. Basically, we trade one need for another. If I have a physical need for food, I may trade some of my cash (which you need to meet your physical needs) for some of your food. If I have a need to validate my sense that I am a good person, I may give you food and thus trade for a feeling that I have done a good thing. Most of the time, the trade-offs can get quickly complicated. If I have a need to express my creative and spiritual self through sharing a musical gift with others, I may trade that gift for payment to perform in front of an audience you provide; they have a need to satisfy their aesthetic needs which they satisfy by paying you for the privilege of hearing me perform. If I am a poor person in an isolated third-world village who needs medical assistance, I may trade that to a doctor who needs to satisfy his altruistic needs by performing the service for free, with expenses paid by a rich person who needs to maintain a reputation for philanthropy.

Whenever we enter into any kind of relationship with another human being or other human beings, no matter how trivial or momentous, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how intimate or distant, we are each of us getting some need met by the interaction.

  1. We nearly always multi-task the meeting of our needs.

When I get something to eat, I may be satisfying my need for food, for basic survival. But I may also be meeting a need for maintaining the health of my body, by choosing nutritious, healthful food; and I may be satisfying my aesthetic needs by choosing food that pleases my eye and my palate; and I may also be satisfying my social needs by sharing my meal with others, which may also satisfy my needs for love and belonging; and if I cook the food myself, or provide it in some other way that reflects back on my abilities in some way, then I may also be satisfying my needs for self-esteem and self-actualization.

All of our needs are systemic. They affect each other. None of my needs are isolated from my other needs.

  1. Sometimes we meet our needs in healthy ways; other times, not so much.

We all eat some junk food once in a while. (Yes, even that organic, vegan, low sugar, gluten-free, whole-grain chocolate chip cookie you just ate is junk food.} We consume all kinds of junk, from pizza to internet click-bait. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Junk meets important needs for us or we wouldn’t consume it. Moderation in all things (except coffee and chocolate, but only organic, free-trade, sustainably and humanely sourced for both and only 70% or higher cocoa content.), right?

We all make uncomfortable and challenging compromises in our relationships with others and ourselves. Sometimes we even make dangerous ones. It is generally accepted that someone in an abusive relationship, if they end that relationship and do nothing else, is about ninety percent likely to form a new abusive relationship. Why? Because they have learned somewhere that in order to be loved, they must expect pain as part of the relationship. That’s the trade-off. They trade their need to be loved for the other’s need to be powerful. Sometimes, we will sometimes trade freedom for even the perception of security, or vice-versa. The artist will ruin her health rather than give up her art.

But it’s not all about hurting ourselves for reasons that are difficult for others to understand. A mother can go without food to ensure that her children are fed. A firefighter can ignore personal safety to rush into a burning building to save someone else. People will stand in the cold, risk arrest, violence, condemnation in order to support a cause which has no direct effect on them, but satisfies their need to be of service in the world.

  1. Virtually all bigotry, hatred, cruelty, and violence are needs-based; but so are compassion, love, understanding, and healing.

And the corollary is that they are the same needs. The need to feel valued by ourselves and others can be exaggerated and perverted into a need to feel superior to someone. Love and hate are often described as two sides of the same emotional coin. The need to have enough to survive and thrive can easily become a need to have more than enough; and with a perception that resources are limited, a need to keep others from getting more than you. The need for security can become a need for control. Fear is the dark side of trust; judgment is the dark side of compassion or understanding; apathy is the dark side of empathy.

  1. Understanding our needs can help us to meet them in healthy ways.

Because none of us wants to be “needy,” most of us have developed a bad habit of understating, self-justifying, rationalizing, or denying the needs that affect us most. And because we aren’t being honest about our needs, we often seek out unhealthy, even self-destructive ways of satisfying them.

Things like fear, anger, stress, depression, even bigotry and hatred are expressions of serious needs that are not being addressed in healthy ways. Violence is always a result of failing to meet needs in healthy ways.

Whenever we find ourselves in negative spaces, it is useful to ask (and answer honestly) several questions:

— What are my needs here? Have I identified them accurately and given them appropriate importance?

— What am I currently doing to try to satisfy those needs?

— Is it working? Is it healthy? What else could I do?

— Who can I trust to help me? What trade-offs am I willing to accept?

It might even be better to spend time each day checking in with ourselves, rather than trying to do this kind of assessment when we are already in crisis.

Ultimately, we are all in this together. We are all givers and we are all takers in equal measure.  We need each other. Understanding our own needs can help us to understand others’ needs as well. And then we can find ways to help each other.

The Question of Evil — Part 2

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

If everything that is, is God, then what is evil?  Is it part of God?  Did God create it?  What is the purpose of evil?

What if there were no “evil” in the world?  What if everything was equally “good?”  No matter what you chose, the consequences would be equally happy, equally beneficial.  How would you choose?  Even simple choices would have no meaning, no significance, no basis for evaluation.  Should I have coffee or tea?  Should I wear the blue shirt or the red?  Should I turn left or right?  What do I prefer?  And on what basis do I prefer it?  When all is good, judgment becomes impossible.  Now the same would be true if there were only evil, of course.  If we could not perceive both good and evil, then choice would be arbitrary and meaningless.

It is interesting to note that the thing that is forbidden in the Garden of Eden is knowledge; specifically, the knowledge of good and evil.  This makes sense only if Adam and Eve are ignorant of both.  They cannot know evil without knowing good, or good without evil, because one is necessary to the other.  Something is good to the extent that it is not evil and vice-versa.  Something is better to the extent that it is less evil and more good; it is worse to the extent that it is less good and more evil.  Now, if it seems I am using evil almost synonymously with “bad,” it’s because I am.  If we believe that there are degrees of evil , or if we simply believe that an evil thing is extremely bad, then we can talk about good and evil as directions rather than places.  And we can see that our ability to understand great good requires us to imagine great evil to compare it with.  Our ability to believe in the Devil as perfect evil requires us to believe in God as perfect good.  Otherwise, what does any of it mean?

As an analogy, consider the idea that if everyone were rich, then no one would be.  An understanding of great wealth requires a contrasting understanding of great poverty.  But when does one become perfectly wealthy?  We have no agreement as to when someone would be so wealthy that no more wealth would be possible or necessary, because we have no contrasting image of someone so poor that greater poverty would be impossible.  Would ownership of literally everything make someone perfectly wealthy?  What if he owned everything and was owed an equal amount? Or twice as much?  Would that make everyone else perfectly poor?  Or would some owe more than others?  Would we have to adjust our understanding of wealth to mean “less in debt?”  At that point would it make any difference?  Perhaps we could even argue that at some point being even more in debt might be a form of wealth, because those who owed the most would be worth the most.  But what if we were to consider wealth and poverty not as places, but as directions?  We would be wealthy to the extent that our choices around wealth moved in a “wealthy” direction; poor to the extent that our wealth choices moved in the direction of “poverty.”

Consider also a bar magnet.  One end is “north,” and the other is “south.”  Or we might call one end “positive” and the other “negative.”  But these distinctions are arbitrary.  If the ends aren’t labeled, how do we know which is which?  And the “positive” and “negative” qualities are not just at the ends.  If we cut the magnet in half, we get two new magnets, each of which has the same qualities of positive and negative.  Cut the two magnets into four, or eight, or sixteen, or however many you want, and you will never reach a point where any piece is all one or the other.

This is the nature of good and evil in our choices.  All choices are actions, and all actions contain the possibility of both good and evil.  Large choices have greater possibilities for good or evil, smaller choices have smaller possibility, but no matter how you slice it, every choice has the potential for either.  In choosing, as in magnets, positive and negative aren’t ends, they are directions.  We can determine the “north” and “south” ends of the magnet if we can make it into a compass, which would allow us to position the magnet according to known, fixed points – one north and one south.  In the same way, we can know the directions our choices might lead us in if we can make magnets of them, orient them to some sort of fixed moral points labeled good and evil.

Morality is our compass.  Our particular standards of morality are the fixed points against which we can orient the positive and negative directions of our actions.  Morality is a set of judgments based on our perceptions of good and evil, of benefit or harm.  Something is evil to the extent that it causes harm, good to the extent that it creates benefit.  But these are arbitrary and human determinations.  That which benefits me might harm you, for instance.  That which I think is good, you might find to be evil.  Each of us has her or his own compass, and they do not all point to the same fixed pole.  And so we gather into communities of various kinds, both spiritual and secular, where we can be with others who have similar compasses to our own.  This doesn’t make the compasses any less arbitrary or human, but it does give us support for our moral judgments.

The Eden Dilemma and the Question of Evil — Part 1

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm

THE EDEN DILEMMA

                If we try to imagine life in the Biblical Garden of Eden, we run into a major problem.  Adam and Eve are depicted as living in a paradise of Godly perfection.  Until the appearance of the serpent, there is no evil: no violence, no corruption, neither illness nor death.  The inhabitants can look forward to an eternity of constant goodness.  But they are also both ignorant and naïve, and purposeless.  Adam is apparently given the task of naming everything in the garden, but why?  Is it just busy-work?  He is incapable of failing at the task, because there are no standards against which to judge his efforts.  Making a mistake is impossible, because a mistake would suggest that there are ”better” or “worse” choices; but this is Eden where there is only good.  But what does “good” mean without anything else to compare it to?  And what of Eve?  Except to provide companionship for Adam, she has no purpose at all.  And what sort of companionship can she provide?  What will they talk about?  There is no point in discussing the names Adam is giving the animals, because there is no basis for discussing them.  After Adam says that this animal is a “sheep,” for instance, and Eve acknowledges the name, what more is there to discuss?  It is impossible to ask whether it is a good name, because it must be.  She can’t even ask “why,” because there is no particular reason for any of it.  And if there were reasons they would all be good reasons.  It is an endless, eternal cycle of unrelenting “goodness.”

Except for three important details.  There is forbidden fruit, there is the ability to make a choice, and there is a possibility of desire.

Without knowledge of good and evil, choice becomes meaningless; and without choice there is no point in knowing about good and evil.  So Adam and Eve must have been given the ability to choose.  They must have had free will.  Otherwise, there would have been no reason for God to deny them access to the Tree of Knowledge, because they could not have chosen to eat from it anyway.  But the ability to choose requires that there be a choice to make.  What choices did Adam and Eve actually have?  They could choose to go to this place or that within Eden, but all places were equally perfect.  They could choose to eat any of the fruit from any tree in the garden, but all fruits were equally perfect.  They could interact with any of the animals in the garden, but all animals and all interactions were equally perfect.  Without the forbidden fruit, without a choice, free will had no meaning.  So how could they choose?

In the absence of reason as a basis for choice, we have to have desire.  If it is equally good to eat a peach or a fig, then perhaps we simply need to desire one or the other.  “I think I would like a peach today,” doesn’t require us to denigrate the choice of a fig, only to recognize a momentary preference.  If we do not think about our preferences, but simply respond to them, act on them, then knowledge of good and evil is only necessary if there is the possibility of evil in a choice we might desire.  This is the real meaning of the serpent.  The serpent doesn’t make Eve aware of the choice – she already knows that the fruit is forbidden – the serpent’s role is to convince Eve that she desires the fruit, so that she has a reason to choose it.  And the fact that the fruit is forbidden is an argument in favor of desire, because unless the thing is desirable, there is no reason to choose it, and consequently no reason to forbid the choice.

But there is still a problem.  The forbidden fruit gives Adam and Eve the knowledge that there is both good and evil in the world, but it doesn’t give them clear knowledge of which is which.  This they have to figure out as they go along.  They quickly understand that things have changed; but they have no solid basis for judging those changes.  They find that they are naked, and become ashamed by the knowledge.  Why?  They have been naked all along in Eden, and Eden is perfect, so why should nakedness be shameful?  Apparently, it is the knowledge of their nakedness that is shameful, not the nakedness itself.  Things get topsy-turvy pretty quickly after that.  In Eden, there is no death.  The lion and the lamb lie down together and both eat grass.  Adam and Eve eat only fruit.  But after they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and know that they are naked, Got clothes them in animal skins.  They learn that not only are the animals now killing each other for survival, but that they must also kill in order to survive.  Before the fall, God had created a world in which killing was not possible; after the fall, the descendants of Adam and Eve kill each other – beginning with Adam and Eve’s first born sons – in order to have the things they need and desire;  and even more than that, they kill other animals, make sacrifices, to honor God.  So is killing evil, or good?

Before the fall, Adam and Eve are ignorant of sex.  There is no need for sex, because there is no need for procreation.  In fact, procreation would be a problem, because there is no death.  There is no desire for sex, because there is no knowledge of sex.  Knowledge of sex would be a problem in Eden unless procreation was impossible, because if sexual activity is a choice, then desire may lead us to choose it, and in the absence of pregnancy prevention, choosing it would inevitably lead to procreation.  But is sex, therefore, evil?  Is procreation?  Is everything that did not exist in Eden before the fall evil by definition?  Note that eating the forbidden fruit doesn’t creategood and evil, it simply allows Adam and Eve to know that they exist.  It allows them to see the possibilities for good and evil in the choices they might make, and to consider those possibilities as they choose.

Thus, the lesson of the Garden of Eden becomes not the emergence of evil, or original sin, but the attainment of knowledge, and with it full humanity.  It is, after all, our ability to choose and to give meaning to our choices that makes us human.  Why would God set it up that way?  Perhaps because if good is the direction of God, then maybe God wants us to choose it; to go toward God consciously; to know what it is we are doing.  And we cannot always know which choice is the “good” one because life is more complex than that, and because the experience of life is, itself, essential to understanding the choices.  If it were easier, it wouldn’t mean so much.

An old folk song praises the day that Eve got Adam to eat the apple, because without that we wouldn’t be here at all.  The fruit of the tree of knowledge, in Eden, was the only fruit (other than eternal life) that was not to be eaten.  Now it is the only fruit we must eat.  We must not go ignorantly or accidently toward God (except of course in the case of children or other innocents), but must eat daily of the fruit of knowledge and then choose.

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